Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth

Fr David’s Sermon 26 June 2016 at St Mary’s Flower Festival

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

What a strange phrase! Jesus “set” his face. What does it mean? In the Greek of Luke’s Gospel, the word is esterisen – which means firmly set, fixed, steadied, grounded. Jesus is firmly fixed, grounded, set on Jerusalem.

What happens in Jerusalem? Well, we all know that is where Jesus is arrested; put on trial; crucified. It is where he rises from the dead and from where the Church, which Jesus commissions, via his disciples, begins its work.
Many times in the Gospel, Jesus talks to his disciples about his death in Jerusalem – but they do not understand. Polonius imparts his wisdom (to Laertes) in Hamlet:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Jesus is set – his face is set – his direction is set – his purpose is set. Jesus is determined to follow God’s will for him, no matter what obstacles come in his path.

This is a special weekend of celebration for us here at St Mary’s. Our talented Flower Guild have staged a festival to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in 1616; and also to celebrate the 90th birthday year of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth 2.

William Shakespeare – is the greatest writer in our culture. His 37 plays, and 153 sonnets, written between 1539 and 1613 are chiefly concerned with setting of faces. Characters who determine themselves to follow a course of action, in love or war. Richard 2, determined to be all powerful; Henry 5, determined to restore credibility and dignity to the English throne; Macbeth, determined to be king himself; Lear, determined to give up power but still retain its trappings and advantages; Romeo and Juliet, determined to pursue the fulfilment of their love, even beyond the grave. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, the Duke of Milan, Prospero is determined, initially to seek revenge for past wrongs, but is moved to be satisfied with his enemies’ repentance, to forgive them and to work to restore harmony.

Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. His began writing in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth and ended in the reign of James 1. During his adult life the old religion and old values had been swept away. The “brave new world” of the Renaissance had introduced a new confidence – of learning, exploration and conquest. No longer, did you have to remain on the rung of the social ladder where God put you; by education, by planning and plotting, by wealth or by sheer force, you could be anything you wanted to be – it depended upon where you set your face. Shakespeare’s plays tell of the consequences of such a culture. Politics, too, were volatile; society longed to find that which would make it stable. Macbeth was written a year after the gunpowder treason of 1604, where a group of Warwickshire terrorists (at least two of whom were known to Shakespeare) had tried to remove a king by murder. It shows the consequences of what happens when personal gain is the motive behind political action.
When dancers train, the first thing they learn is to “spot” – that means to keep fixing one’s eyes on the same distant spot whilst spinning to ensure dizziness will not make them over balance. It is crucial to master this skill to make progress as a serious dancer. No matter how elegantly you spin – if you don’t set your face on a particular spot you will lose your balance and fall over.

After Elizabeth 1 died in 1603, Shakespeare’s acting company was renamed the King’s Men and they played at the royal court in Whitehall. The bulk of the plays were about kingship and seeking for social stability. Why? Because, Shakespeare had the privilege of writing and performing plays for the king himself. It was possible for Shakespeare to keep the eyes of James 1 on the spot, by meditating in drama on what makes a good king.
I wonder where our eyes are set after this week? We have had the most bizarre election experience of our lifetime. Whatever you think or feel about the result – there is no denying that, as a nation, we are not sure where our face is set. We may be in for challenging times ahead. We have certainly heard some ugly and dangerous language giving voice to divisive concepts which have worried and scared people. We need to reset our faces on that which provides stability and harmony. We need to gaze upon Christ.

Many times, we try to soften the Gospel message of Christ. We try to convince ourselves that Jesus doesn’t really want us to give things up – but he does. We try to persuade ourselves that we don’t really have to mix with those who are different from us; those who make us annoyed, or uncomfortable. He does! As Shakespeare shows in play after play, humanity will set its eyes on a particular spot. Jesus’ face is set on Jerusalem; set on doing God’s work: forgiving, healing, loving. Are our faces set in the same direction as Jesus? Are we set on the path of discipleship? Our goal is to build God’s kingdom now, in this community. Our goal is how we bring that kingdom to life in all we touch with our lives; in the painful moments as well as the joyful moments.

As we set our faces towards Jerusalem with Jesus, that means our faces are set for a life of sacrifice, a life of real and total love: a love which forgives; a love which heals; a love which builds relationships where we set each other free to be the people God each one of us to be.
Are we set on a path of discipleship? Are we set to build the kingdom of God’s love? Is that spot – the point we aim at – the focus that gives meaning to our lives a spot that will set us and those around us free? Prospero’s last speech from The Tempest – the last words Shakespeare ever wrote:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Shakespeare is saying: be kind to one another; be generous; be loving. For it is only when our faces are set towards the shining beauty of God’s grace, that the brightness of God’s love can be reflected upon our faces and make them beautiful. Amen.